Bringing SCOTUS Up To Code | Crooked Media
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July 20, 2023
What A Day
Bringing SCOTUS Up To Code

In This Episode

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote on a bill today that would impose a code of ethics on the Supreme Court. While Democrats say the move is necessary in light of recent reports about Justice Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito’s relationship with GOP mega donors, the legislation is unlikely to become law due to strong opposition from Republicans.
  • Private health insurance companies have denied millions of requests for care from Medicaid recipients with little to no oversight, according to a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services. Its inspector general found high rates of denials for lower-income patients, but many states don’t review – or even collect – data on such refusals.
  • And in headlines: Stanford University’s president will resign following an investigation into his past research, Phoenix, Arizona logged its 20th consecutive day of temperatures over 110 degrees, and the ACLU asked a federal judge to transfer juvenile prisoners out of Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison amid brutal summer heat.


Show Notes:



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Priyanka Aribindi: It’s Thursday, July 20th. I’m Priyanka Aribindi. 


Juanita Tolliver: And I’m Juanita Tolliver  and this is What A Day with a message for anyone who’s undecided on whether to see the Barbie movie or Oppenheimer this weekend. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Listen, you already know what the right answer is here. You’re just going to see both. It’s fine.


Juanita Tolliver: And stay in the A.C.. Like, that’s the whole point anyway. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Seriously, you got like 6 hours in the A.C. with that. Perfect, win win win all around. [music break]


Juanita Tolliver: On today’s show, Stanford University’s president will step down following a review of concerns about the integrity of his research. Plus, searing heat has smashed temperature records in the southwest. 


Priyanka Aribindi: But first, today, the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote on a bill that would impose a new code of ethics on the Supreme Court and its justices. This follows if you have been paying attention– 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Priyanka Aribindi: –a series of bombshell reporting from ProPublica on Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito and the lack of definitive action afterwards from Chief Justice John Roberts. That reporting centered around Thomas and Alito’s respective lavish vacations, all paid for by Republican billionaire mega-donors and people with business before the Supreme Court, as well as property sales, gifts, etc.. Neither justice disclosed any of this. I don’t know, it seems like a bit of a problem to me. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Democrats say that establishing a basic code of ethics for the court, especially at a time like this, with all this heightened scrutiny, is necessary for, you know, renewing trust and faith in this institution. Really kind of feels like that to me. But don’t get too excited quite yet. The legislation is not expected to become law at this point due to strong Republican opposition. 


Juanita Tolliver: And you mentioned trust and confidence in the court. Well, a NBC poll recently showed that less than a third of the public views the Supreme Court favorably. So there’s that reality. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Right. 


Juanita Tolliver: But if this magical bill does come to fruition, what would it aim to do?


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. So among other things, the measure would require the court to establish an official code of conduct for justices, set firmer standards for when they have to recuse themselves from cases. Create a new investigatory board that would look into claims of misconduct and set provisions around transparency for amicus briefs that are filed with the court. 


Juanita Tolliver: I mean, sounds like this is exactly what Clarence and Samuel need to keep them in line because they are acting up right now. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Seriously, they are going wild out there going on every which vacation apparently. This is not the first time, actually, that something like this has been attempted. Versions of similar bills have been introduced in the last several Congresses, but Republican opposition has remained very consistent over time. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, which is voting on this bill today, described the latest effort as part of a broader attempt by Democrats to attack the court’s legitimacy. In a recent op ed, senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that Democrats have, quote, “moved from complaining about the Supreme Court’s reasoning to questioning its independence.” Neither of these critiques obviously have anything to do with the very large ethical missteps that these two conservative justices have made that have, you know, brought us here, brought all of this scrutiny onto the court in recent months, at all. They feel very far from reality, from relevance. All of the above. Um. Just trying to paint everything as a political attack really seems like their M.O. these days. But despite the fact that this doesn’t stand much of a chance with the current Republican led House, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who is the lead sponsor of this bill, has characterized this as just round one to get things going, especially as we head into an election year in just a few more months. So it remains to be seen what will happen here. We’ll obviously keep you posted on if anything happens.


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. Translation, don’t hold your breath. But also– 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. 


Juanita Tolliver: Mitch McConnell being like, Hey, look over there is the vibe right now, it’s giving cartoon response and that’s a mess. [laugh]


Priyanka Aribindi: Seriously getting very, very old. 


Juanita Tolliver: All right. Now we’re going to pivot to a health care story, which is actually pretty heartbreaking. According to a brand new report released by the inspector general’s office of the Department of Health and Human Services. Private health insurance companies have denied millions of requests for care from Medicaid recipients, and they’re denying people health care with next to no oversight. Specifically, these insurers denied one out of every eight requests for the prior authorization of services in 2019, and some private insurance companies even had denial rates greater than 25%, twice the overall denial rate. So essentially, people who are living on low incomes and have relied on Medicaid to have access to basic health care aren’t even getting the care that they need because of these private insurance companies. And it feels pretty evil. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, I mean, the health care system for anyone who has done even basic navigation of it. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Is daunting enough as is. But for, you know, all these people who are reliant on this system to take care of them, this is especially alarming. So what prompted this review in the first place by the inspector general? 


Juanita Tolliver: According to the report, their office conducted this review after receiving a high volume of allegations that some of these insurers, quote, “inappropriately delayed or denied care for thousands of people enrolled in Medicaid. Including patients who needed treatment for cancer and cardiac conditions, elderly patients and patients with disabilities who needed in-home care and medical devices.” Essentially, these are the people who needed care the most. It’s so disheartening because private insurers receive a lump sum payment per patient rather than for each treatment they receive or each visit they make to the doctor’s office. And the key phrase throughout this report is prior authorization, which insurers used to limit what they deem to be unnecessary or unproven treatments. Meanwhile, doctors and their patients are not even able to use treatments or any methods of care in a timely fashion or at all because they’re being denied. It’s wild, especially when insurance companies can will this prior authorization power without being checked. And that’s one of the reasons the inspector general’s office believes that Medicaid recipients aren’t receiving the care that they need. It’s as though the people who are poor are doomed even when the aid and care they’re supposed to receive comes with barriers upon barriers. And according to The New York Times, about three quarters of people enrolled in Medicaid receive health services through private companies. So odds are their lives are being cut short. The quality of care is subpar, and millions of vulnerable people are being impacted. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, it’s really a staggering impact here. That many people is nothing to turn away from. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Do we know which insurance companies here are the worst offenders? I feel like probably some names we might recognize, right? 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah. This report include a little bit of tea y’all. So some of the insurers that were included in the report and had high rates of denying authorization to patients included Molina Healthcare, Anthem, Care Source, Aetna, UnitedHealth Care and Centene Corporation. And I know you’ll recognize some of those names.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. Oh, my God. Those are big ones in there. 


Juanita Tolliver: Big brands, big companies. And even with high rates of denials, the report noted that most state Medicaid agencies do not routinely review the denials or even collect and monitor the data. And that’s part of the reason why the OIG thinks these insurers deny people care at such high rates because no one’s actually watching them. No one’s actually monitoring their day to day behavior. These denials and why they’re keep coming. On top of that, there’s no one for Medicaid beneficiaries to even call or contact in order to actually get the care they need when they’re facing these denials. States don’t have any reporting systems to connect patients to external reviewers, and the appeals process isn’t useful at all When the appeal goes back to the same private insurance company that denies patients in the first place. So it’s basically an endless hellscape loop for Medicaid patients, and that includes the Medicaid beneficiaries who are being kicked off the program since the COVID pandemic Emergency order sunset back in May. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Right. Okay. So it couldn’t be coming at a worse time. But what recommendations did the OIG include in the report to try and make this better? Like, are there any steps they can be taking in the immediate future? 


Juanita Tolliver: Yeah, they did include some recommendations and it gives me a little bit of hope and it’s pretty basic. So step one is for states to review a sample of the prior authorization denials on a regular basis and actually pay attention to what the frequency and justifications are. Step two is to collect data and let the insurers know that they’re being watched and to use the information as a shared resource. Step three is to implement, quote, “automatic external medical reviews of upheld denials in order to get a second opinion quickly for patients.” And then finally, they recommend that states develop guidance for how to hold these insurers accountable. Because the reality is that these insurers are hurting people who are already struggling. And it has got to stop. Of course, we’ll keep following the story and maybe even get a response from private insurance companies. But that’s the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads. [music break]. 




Priyanka Aribindi: Let’s wrap up with some headlines. 


[sung] Headlines. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced that he will resign after an investigation into his past research as a neuroscientist. A panel of experts concluded that five research papers in which he was a principal author included manipulated research data or, quote, “engaged in deficient scientific practices, resulting in significant flaws in those papers.” Tessier-Lavigne says he plans to retract three of the five papers in question and correct the other two. And retracting scientific papers is a big deal. Only about four out of every 10,000 papers published are retracted. So– 


Juanita Tolliver: Yikes. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Really not happening very often. This is very embarrassing, especially for a person with such an like esteemed high up position, not good. 


Juanita Tolliver: Formally esteemed. [laughing]. 


Priyanka Aribindi: The panel stopped short of accusing him of fraud, saying that there wasn’t enough evidence that Tessier-Lavigne himself knew about the manipulation of the data at the time, but they did fault him for not correcting it sooner. It’s also worth mentioning that the Stanford Daily, which is the university’s newspaper, first broke this story last November. So shout out to the student journalists who are keeping everybody on their toes. This is like really impressive, incredible work that they have done here. And it’s really made a difference.


Juanita Tolliver: How many students get to say we took down a president. Mmm.


Priyanka Aribindi: Seriously. [laughter]


Juanita Tolliver: Wagner Group Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has apparently made his first public appearance since leading and calling off an armed rebellion in Russia last month. In a video posted on channels affiliated with the mercenary group, Prigozhin appears to welcome some of his fighters at a training camp in Belarus. That could confirm reports that Wagner fighters are now being trained as military instructors in that country. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prigozhin reportedly struck a deal after the coup attempt that allowed Prigozhin and his fighters to avoid charges by going into exile. However, it appears that Prigozhin is still feeling salty with Russia’s top military brass. In the video, he can be heard saying this about the current state of the war in Ukraine. Quote, “What is happening at the front now is a disgrace in which we do not need to participate.” But he also hinted that Wagner troops could return to the conflict in the future. It’s like he’s dangling this over Putin’s head every single day. So there we go. 


Priyanka Aribindi: If you are listening to us from Phoenix, Arizona, we are so sorry about what you are going through and we hope you are safe, hydrated and enjoying some sweet, sweet air conditioning. That is because yesterday the city logged its 20th consecutive day of temperatures over 110 degrees. The previous record of 19 days set back in 1974 was smashed on Tuesday. And forecasters warn that the streak could keep going into next week. My little brain simply cannot even wrap my head around what it must be like to be in 110 degree heat for this many days on end, let alone for like a minute and a half. There has not been much relief with the sun going down either going into Wednesday morning, the nighttime low was a blistering 97 degrees. This is the middle of the night. 


Juanita Tolliver: In darkness? 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah it’s not natural. It is not right. Phoenix is also looking at one of its longest recorded stretches without measurable rain. The area typically gets some respite around this time of year with some monsoonal moisture, but so far that isn’t happening. And while Phoenix and other parts of the Southwest are used to extreme heat, this wave has become especially dangerous for unhoused people. Health care workers in Phoenix have reported treating people who have suffered second degree burns after passing out or falling asleep on hot sidewalks. This is just it’s a crisis. It really is. 


Juanita Tolliver: It’s a public emergency. And we need to start treating it like it is because wow.


Priyanka Aribindi: Big time. 


Juanita Tolliver: And another example of how the climate crisis is affecting vulnerable populations. The ACLU has asked a federal judge to transfer juvenile prisoners being held at a former death row facility at a Louisiana State Prison. Lawyers for the civil rights organization say the 15 children held at the maximum security prison known as Angola are often locked in solitary confinement cells with no windows or air conditioning for nearly 24 hours a day amid the brutal summer heat. Their complaint cited weather data for the area showing that the heat index regularly went past 100 degrees, even climbing as high as 130 degrees. This is giving cruel and unusual punishment. These are children we’re talking about. What in the world. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Geez. 


Juanita Tolliver: Young people held at Angola have also reported not having access to clean drinking water or mental health care. Advocates have been fighting to end youth incarceration at Angola for several months due to the facility’s notorious reputation for violence and poor living conditions. At least 70 children have been moved through Angola by the state since July of last year. Most of whom are, you guessed it, Black. Louisiana Governor John Edwards promised that the state would transfer all children prisoners at Angola to different facilities by the spring. But that deadline has since been pushed back to November. Oh, my goodness. Please get these kids out of there immediately. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, seriously, the difference between spring and November is huge. 


Juanita Tolliver: In Louisiana, no less. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Regardless, solitary confinement is one thing, which we know the effects of that. But you’re contending with heat, which is deadly and known to be like this is. Get on this. Somebody, please. 


Juanita Tolliver: Right. 


Priyanka Aribindi: And finally, this last story is a little shady. Many people in L.A. are calling this one Treegate because it is turning into a whodunit involving a row of ficus trees outside of the Universal Studios lot. That is where striking Hollywood writers and actors have gathered to picket and to get some much needed relief from the relentless heat. But on Monday, they were surprised to find that the trees had been heavily trimmed back over the weekend. That led to speculation that the studio did it to deter them from actually gathering there. In a statement, NBC Universal admitted to the pruning, saying that it was for “safety reasons,” quote unquote, and that the inconvenience to strikers was, quote, “unintentional.” Hmm. However, L.A. city officials are now investigating because the trees in question are city property and no tree trimming permits were pulled for that stretch in the last three years. Hmm. The plot thickens a bit. Meanwhile, both SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild have filed unlawful labor practice charges against NBC Universal, alleging that the studio has created unsafe conditions at that picketing location. No matter how you cut this. This does not look very good. This is not boding well for NBC Universal. They uh messed with the wrong people and now the city is getting involved. I mm mm this is not not going to end well for you. I’m so sorry. And those are the headlines. 




Priyanka Aribindi: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review. Enjoy the shade of an intact ficus tree if you can, and tell your friends to listen. 


Juanita Tolliver: And if you’re into reading and not just stellar student journalism like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Juanita Tolliver.


Priyanka Aribindi: I’m Priyanka Aribindi. 


[spoken together] And stay cool out there.


Juanita Tolliver: Y’all like–


Priyanka Aribindi: Seriously. 


Juanita Tolliver: Deadass, just go to the movie theater, stay for like 5 hours and watch great movies. 


Priyanka Aribindi: Just stay in the lobby, just loiter. It’s fine. 


Juanita Tolliver: Oh yeah. That’s an option.


Priyanka Aribindi: Just go anywhere with air conditioning if you don’t have it, that’s what you gotta do. 


Juanita Tolliver: Be safe. [music break]


Priyanka Aribindi: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our show’s producer is Itxy Quintanilla. Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf are our associate producers. Our intern is Ryan Cochran, and our senior producer is Lita Martinez. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.